Monday, September 9, 2019
We feature each fortnight Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books.
“KARL WOLFSKEHL – A POET IN EXILE” by Friedrich Voit (Cold Hub Press, $NZ40); “A COMMUNIST IN THE FAMILY – Searching for Rewi Alley” by Elspeth Sandys (Otago University Press, $NZ40)
Reading Karl Wolfskehl – A Poet in Exile, I am like a blind man feeling his way around an unfamiliar room. This may be a rather coarse image to attach to the biography of a poet who went blind. But I want to emphasise that, having only a smattering of German, and being unfamiliar with the (mostly untranslated) poetry of Wolfskehl, I was in very alien territory reading this book.
Of course I knew part of the public reputation of Wolfskehl, that will be known to many literate New Zealanders. He was the eminent German-Jewish poet who, fleeing Nazi persecution, settled in New Zealand in 1938 and remained here until his death in 1948, not long before his 80th birthday. Like another exile, the Austrian philosopher Karl Popper, he represented European high culture in a New Zealand that was starved of such influences; and he connected with many local literary figures of the time. When I was much younger, I knew two of these figures, as I will note later in this review.
Friedrich Voit, Associate-Professor of German at the University of Auckland, and co-translator (into English) of works by Wolfskehl, has written a biography which deliberately focuses on Wolfskehl’s years of exile from his native (south) Germany. Wolfskehl was born in 1869. His forebears had lived in Germany for centuries and, while they were proud of their Jewish heritage, they regarded themselves as completely assimilated. Wolfskehl had a respectful attitude to the Christian religion, but ultimately adhered to the Torah and regarded Jesus as a fellow Jew, not as a messiah. He was sympathetic to Zionism, but he never fully embraced it and, though ployglot, he did not know the Hebrew language. He did, however, take great interest in German-Jewish poets of earlier centuries, and was involved in translations of their work.
But the most important influence on him was the lyric poet Stefan George. In the 1890s and early 1900s he was a key member of George’s “circle”, embracing his symbolism (this was the era of Mallarme), his transcendentalism and his somewhat elitist ideas of national regeneration be means of poetically-inspired intellectuals. George’s ideas (at least as reflected in this book) could lead his followers to adopt a broad, literary humanism, or to adopt an exalted form of nationalism. Perhaps it is not surprising that, unlike Wolfskehl, at least some of George’s (German, non-Jewish) followers adopted an extreme form of nationalism that ultimately led them to accept Nazism. German transcendentalism could seduce well-meaning people away from hard social realities.
As for Wolfskehl himself, he remained a patriotic German right through the First World War, but then began to see things heading in a sinister direction in the 1920s. He fled Germany as soon as Hitler came to power in 1933. It will surprise some readers (although not those who know their history) that for his first five years of exile, Wolfskehl, and many other German-Jewish refugees, lived happily and unmolested in Fascist Italy – a Mediterranean culture which he greatly enjoyed. For most of Mussolini’s dictatorship, anti-semitism was not part of Fascist ideology. It was only in 1938 that Il Duce, aping his new ally Der Fuhrer, adopted anti-Jewish laws – at which point Wolfskehl fled Italy and, after a brief sojourn in Australia, settled in New Zealand, which was not only as far as possible from troubled Europe, but which he had been told was a tolerant, non-racist society.
Understandably, Friedrich Voit devotes only his first two chapters to Wolfskehl’s life before 1938. The following five chapters are about his time in New Zealand. Wolfskehl had deserted his wife Hanna (from whom he was never divorced) and his two children in the 1920s when, already in his fifties, he took up with Margot Ruben, who was 30 years his junior. When he reached New Zealand he was nearly 70. Conforming to the propriety of the time, he had to pretend that Margot was his niece. Inevitably, Voit spends quite some time detailing Wolfskehl’s trials as he had to move from one Auckland address to another, either when he could no longer afford the rent, or when he found his rented quarters uncongenial. Having come from a wealthy family and having never had to pursue a paying career, Wolfskehl was dependent on remittances from friends overseas, or from whatever Margot Ruben could earn as a teacher. Gradually becoming completely blind, he was very dependent on Margot as amanuensis and secretary, so her necessary outside work caused some tension.
At first Wolfskehl found Auckland physically congenial, but was starved of the sophisticated, cosmopolitan literary society to which he was accustomed. On brief trips to Dunedin (where there were more German-speaking refugees) and Christchurch, he found more of the cultural life he craved. But gradually Auckland literati and artists gathered around him. His first real contacts were the Auckland craft printer Ronald Holloway and his formidable wife Kay (Kathleen). Ronald shared his interest in artistic typefaces and rare books; and Kay, though not speaking the German language, volunteered to turn literal translations if his poetry into acceptable English-language verse. Later he was befriended by Frank Sargeson, A.R.D. (Rex) Fairburn and R.A.K. Mason. All these people were attracted to Wolfkehl by his congeniality, his willingness to discuss literature, including the New Zealand literature he was just getting to know, and, of course, the fact that he was a fund of knowledge on Europe’s humanistic literary traditions. Remember, Wolfskehl was somebody who knew personally, or had known, Franz Kafka, Rainer Maria Rilke, Martin Buber, Thomas Mann, Hugo von Hoffmanstahl – and Stefan George.
This is all the “external” story of Wolfskehl as told by Voit. But, being first and foremost a literary biographer, Voit is as much concerned with the poetry Wolfskehl was writing during his exile – and it his here that I admit to a difficulty in reading Karl Wolfskehl – A Poet in Exile, because I am not conversant with the poetry being discussed. Wolfskehl had apparently given up writing poetry before the end of the First World War, but exile and the rise of Nazism fired him to return to poetry. His poems were never, however, direct political commentary or satire. Following Stefan George’s symbolist example, and as far as I can make out from this book, Wolfskehl preferred to write in an allegorical form when he condemned the new barbarism. I have Voit’s word for it that it was in his New Zealand exile that he either produced, or gave final form to, some of his most enduring work – to give their English titles “The Voice Speaks”, “To the Germans” and “Job or the Four Mirrors”. Analysing these poems is as much Voit’s concern as chronicling the externals of Wolfskehl’s life.
I do find one interesting theme in this book. It is clear that Wolfskehl was an amiable man who loved conversing with fellow poets and artists. But while many New Zealand writers liked and admired him, in a way they also found his influence burdensome and a distraction from their own interests. For a couple of years, Frank Sargeson and A.R.D.Fairburn were his most constant visitors and supporters, avid for his conversation. But both abruptly deserted him. Voit comments “the weight of Wolfskehl’s literary background, his experience and erudition impressed, but it belonged to a Central European tradition and a past generation that had ceased to be a model for the younger New Zealand writers and intellectuals” (p.128)
One suspects that even Wolfskehl often had doubts about both his spiritual aestheticism and its relevance to the modern world for “no event made him more aware of the discrepancy between the early twentieth-century elitist Georgean [i.e. related to Stefan George] utopia of high culture and aesthetic spirituality, which he still upheld as an ultimate humanistic ideal, and the socio-political reality of the present than the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki…” (p144). And yet even after this he had “his continued devotion to the Georgean ethos and the circle’s utopia based on an idealised classical Mediterranean culture and pholosophy.” (p.153)
Reading Karl Wolfskehl – A Poet in Exile, I often felt that Wolfskehl was not only a man from another country and culture, but a man from another age, as if the likes of Joris-Karl Huysmans or Algernon Swinburne had somehow landed in 1940s Auckland. It is for specialists to assess how apt Friedrich Voit’s analyses of Wolfskehl’s poetry are.
Personal Note: As I said in the above review, at least two of Wolfskehl’s New Zealand supporters, both many years older than me, were personal friends of mine. These were Ron and Kay Holloway, my next-door neighbours for the first 22 years of my life, and people whom I thereafter visited frequently until their respective deaths. I am pleased that at pp.138-139, Friedrich Voit quotes from Kay Holloway’s memoirs (Volume 2 Meet Me at the Press) but, perhaps tactfully, he leaves out Kay’s characterisation of Margot Ruben as “very possessive and [resentful of] anyone else, especially anyone neither German nor Jewish, having any influence on [Wolfskehl].” He also omits Kay’s expressed annoyance with Margot for losing her (Kay’s) translations of some of Wolfkehr’s poems. Very occasionally I heard Ron speak affectionately of Wolfskehl, and he did tell one amusing story. Apparently the Holloways encouraged their eldest son Patrick, then a little boy, to make an illustrated calendar as a gift to Wolfskehl – but when the time came to give it to the great poet, the little boy burst into tears and couldn’t bring himself to hand over what he had spent so long making. Of course Wolfkehl accepted the situation with a good grace.
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Fourteeen years ago, in July 2005 to be precise, I had a very interesting experience which told me much about the mindset of people who admire totalitarian regimes. The biographer Jung Chang, former Communist and Red Guard during the “Cultural Revolution”, was in Auckland to promote her iconoclastic biography of Mao Zedong, Mao – The Unknown Story, which denounced Mao for his genocidal policies and hypocrisy. Her hefty and detailed book dispelled many of the heroic myths that well-meaning, but naïve, Westerners had about the birth and nature of China’s Communist regime. Mao – The Unknown Story was criticised in some quarters for elements of its historical research. If you have access to such things, you can read a particularly detailed take-down of the book by Andrew Nathan in the 17 November 2005 issue of The London Review of Books. Nevertheless, it was a necessary corrective to idealistic daydreams about the “People’s” Republic as a benign, progressive state, stamping out feudalism and the corrupt regime of Chiang Kai-Shek and bringing uplift to "the people".
I toddled along to the Bruce Mason Centre in Takapuna to hear Jung Chang speak. She was part of a panel discussing her book. Present was a journalist, a great admirer of Rewi Alley, who was clearly very discomforted by much that Jung Chang said. He wanted to cling to the idealistic daydream. The really telling moment came when Jung Chang spoke of the tens of thousands who were tortured and/or killed during the “Cultural Revolution”, and the millions – possibly as many as 55 million – who died of famine during the collectivisation of the “Great Leap Forward”. At which point the journalist blurted out in protest “But China’s a big country!” The implication was clear. Who cares if many millions died as a direct result of the regime’s policy? China had many more millions to spare. Besides, they were expendable so long as the journalist’s daydreams of a socialist utopia could be maintained. And, of course, the journalist could admire the totalitarian regime from the comfort of distant New Zealand, where he enjoyed all the liberal freedoms and didn’t have to endure the faraway regime’s rules.
I could go off at a tangent and note the implicit racism in much worship of distant oppressive regimes – in this case, the mindset which suggests that “liberal democracy doesn’t suit the Chinese” or “the Chinese aren’t ready for democracy”, masks for the fundamental racism which assumes that the Chinese do not have reasoning powers, do not have the ability to work as a democracy and are not aware of alternatives to the regime that has been imposed upon them.
However, my business is to review Elspeth Sandys’ (largely admiring) book about Rewi Alley, so I will break with further polemic.
Novelist, short-story writer and memoirist, Elspeth Sandys is also a cousin of Rewi Alley. A Communist in the Family (Searching for Rewi Alley) was written in part because, in 2017, she took a guided tour in China with a group celebrating the 90th anniversary of Rewi Alley’s arrival in China in 1927. Its chapters alternate between accounts of her trip and her reconstructions of Alley’s life in China.
When she writes of Rewi Alley, her focus is on the humanitarian that he appears to have been in his early years in China – the years of the Kuomintang (KMT = “Nationalist”) government, its fitful civil war with the Communists (CP), foreign “concessions” in seaports like Shanghai, and the Japanese invasion and Second World War. We hear of how, after coming to China in 1927 with no particular agenda, Alley became a fireman, then an important factory inspector in Shanghai at a time when most factories were dominated by foreign interests. He was appalled by child labour and the cruel exploitation of children. He came to sympathise with the Communists. Later, in the Second World War, he founded and in part organised the “Gung Ho” movement which moved China’s industries away from the cities and coasts where they were vulnerable to Japanese attack. Later still, he set up a school for Chinese boys in the north of the country. In all this, Sandys is very anxious to tell us that, despite rumours, Rewi Alley wasn’t gay (see p.46).
Sandys appears to accept, unquestioningly, heroic myths of the genesis of the Communist “People’s” Republic of China, as in her account of the “Long March” (in Chapter 27). Perhaps, to counter this idealised narrative, she should have read A Foreign Missionary on the Long March, memoirs edited and introduced by Anne-Marie Brady, which reveals that the CP forces of the “Long March” were as predatory upon peasants as any other army at the time, and were not embraced by “the people” any more than warlord or KMT forces were. But this book doesn’t appear in Sandys’ bibliography. Her comments on “Gung Ho” (Chapter 13) are equally uncritical, not noting the movement’s many and severe shortcomings. I make it clear that in saying all this, I am not whitewashing the regime that preceded the Communist takeover. I am fully aware that, under Chiang Kaishek (Sandys’ preferred spelling) the KMT had Fascistic tendencies (although Stalin supported it for many years), was very corrupt, had a bullying secret police and a reputation for cruelty. But writing negative comments should not be a matter of either/or. It should be a matter of both/and. To condemn the KMT and give an easier ride to the CP in the 1930s and 1940s is like condemning the Tsar and praising Stalin. For me, alarm bells ring when Sandys acknowledges Geoff Chapple as a major source (on p.31) and describes Chapple’s hagiographic 1980 biography Rewi Alley of China (personally approved by Alley) as “my bible” (on p. 383).
In her account of her 2017 guided tour of China, there are pages of what I can only call studied naïvete. We are told (pp.73 ff.) that the tour party’s amiable Chinese guide Ben tells stories of what the “Cultural Revolution” was to him – a rewarding experience. Sandys knows this cannot be the whole story, and says that the tourists tried to question Ben about thorny issues like free speech; but that he steered away from political questions. But in the end “I couldn’t help admiring Ben. He’d succeeded in declawing us. Nothing we asked seemed to faze him. He had an answer for everything.” (p.77) Is this statement to be taken at face value? Does she really believe Ben had a (legitimate) answer for everything? Or is she admitting that tour guides in the “People’s” Republic are well versed in presenting smooth versions of the official line? Elsewhere she says she asks a question on religious freedom and “…at least I know I can ask it. No one would deny that censorship exists in China, as it does in one form or another in every country, but I’ve been able to talk openly of the Cultural Revolution and even the Tienanmen Square protest, so perhaps the clampdown on freedom of speech is not as severe as I’d imagined.” (p.171) Reading this statement, I almost fell off my chair laughing. OF COURSE a tourist, separated from unsupervised Chinese listeners, can ask whatever he or she likes. I already knew this from my own incredibly brief (two nights stopover) visit to Shanghai, where I asked cheeky questions of the official guides (see my posting Confessions of a Heartless Capitalist Exploiter). But censorship in China means the Chinese masses are not allowed to know even the basics of their own history and current events, and are certainly not allowed to express dissenting opinions. And note how Sandys sneaks in the phrase that censorship exists in China “as it does in one form or another in every country”, as if the one-party regime’s censorship is little different from censorship in a pluralistic democracy, where dissent is free to flourish.
Without being accused of dismissiveness, I am allowed to note that much of this book is fiction. Sandys tells us so herself, for her Author’s Note says: “In the interests of creating a dramatic narrative I have taken some liberties in my depiction of Rewi’s relationships with friends and family. At times, based on what I know of the facts, I have imagined meetings and conversations, but I have been careful not to stray from the written record.… I hope readers will forgive any mistakes made in daring to imagine Rewi Alley’s life in a country so far from his birthplace, and mine.” (p.7) Often, in “reconstructing” scenes of Alley’s life and conversations he is supposed to have had, she will begin with a phrase like “I imagine…” and then produce pages that read like a simplistic didactic novel, with dialogue neatly explaining things.
I do note that Elspeth Sandys is aware both of Alley’s complicity in Maoist propaganda and in his eventual contempt for Mao – although he expressed that contempt very ambiguously: Rewi blamed the destructive upheaval of the “Cultural Revolution” on the “Gang of Four” rather than on Mao himself, but this pretext “failed to stem the slow drip of a much wider disillusionment. By the end of the 1970s Rewi’s faith in Mao has gone…”(p.118). Sandys also makes it clear that Alley wrote many of his encomia on the Communist regime under duress. (pp.148-49). Nevertheless, this should signal to us that, whether he wrote voluntarily or otherwise, most of what he wrote under CP rule was worthless as commentary or historical record. Relatively little of Sandys’ 350-page text deals with Alley’s years as propaganda “asset” – even though these 39 years (from the CP takeover in 1949 to Alley’s death in 1987) were far longer than his earlier 22 years in China. In fairness I note that Sandys herself does use the term “mouthpiece” when dealing with Alley’s reaction to the “Cultural Revolution” (p.273); and she is clearly very upset that Alley wrote two propaganda books in support of collectivisation during the mass famines triggered by the “Great Leap Forward” (p.148 and p.329). Speaking of the KMT era, and Japanese occupation, Sandys says that Alley was willing to look at, and condemn, the evils that were happening, because “Rewi, unlike most of his contemporaries, was constitutionally unable to look away.” (p.155) But “looking away” was exactly what Alley did between 1949 and 1987. Of his reticence, Sandys tactfully says “Rewi didn’t write lies during these dark years but he didn’t write the truth either.” (p.97).
I am amused that Sandys says, of New Zealand’s failure to honour Alley with his image on a banknote, that “The virus of anti-communism – and its country cousin, racism – still infects the land.” (p.190). I know that there are extreme right-wing racist nutters, but since when did being anti-communist of itself make one racist? And why should such a statement be provoked by such a trivial matter?
There is one big elephant in this room which A Communist in the Family largely bypasses. That is the fact that Alley’s reputation has – justifiably – been tarnished in recent years. Sandys never engages with the arguments in Anne-Marie Brady’s necessary debunking book Friend of China: the Myth of Rewi Alley (published in 2003). Sandys confines herself to a dismissive comment (p.47) and to quoting Tom Newnham’s overwrought statement that Anne-Marie Brady was intentionally “crucifying” Alley. (p.191) Brady’s major – and really irrefutable – argument was that Alley was used as other “friends of China” have always been used by the CP regime: as a “respectable” figure to present a positive image of the “People’s” Republic to other countries. A sort of diplomatic puppet. It is only because of his usefulness to the regime that his myth has been fostered, statues to him have been raised, and tour parties have been invited to celebrate his memory. If Alley is supposedly the reason why New Zealand has "favoured nation" status in China, it is simply because invoking his name can allow the Chinese government to trot out some cliches about him when it comes to striking trade deals.
I finished this very unsatisfactory book with two complex reactions.
First, I understand that Sandys deplores genocide practised by Mao’s regime, and is saddened that Rewi Alley was often a propagandist for that regime. But she also deplores the fact that China, while still officially Communist, is now running a competitive, market-driven entrepreneurial economy, with a widening gap between rich and poor. What she longs for are the simpler times when it could still be believed that, in supporting the Communists, Rewi Alley was supporting a movement that would create a fair and just society. This ignores the fact that the CP was never heading in that direction, was always totalitarian in intention, and was nothing like the glamourised myth of its rise. But it is the myth to which she clings.
Second, I can’t help noticing that this book appears at the very time when Anne-Marie Brady is being harrassed for her heretical views, and when the “People’s” Republic – the republic for which Rewi Alley was so often a cheerleader – is vigorously attempting to stamp out what remains of democracy in the autonomous territory of Hong Kong. The people who are trying to defend Hong Kong’s democracy are, of course, also Chinese. But I’ll probably be called a racist for pointing this out.